Why you should care
Because even saints can be poor judges of character.
As she watched her son ride away on the back of Gilles de Rais’ horse, Peronne Leossart realized she had made a mistake. When Gilles de Montmorency-Laval — the famed Baron de Rais who fought alongside Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orléans — passed through La Roche-Bernard, France, in September 1438, the young lord was welcomed as a hero. Naturally, Leossart felt honored when a servant asked whether her 10-year-old son would like to go live with de Rais and become his page. But when her son mounted de Rais’ horse to leave, Leossart was overcome with dread and begged the great lord to give her son back — a request he met with resolute silence.
Leossart would never see her son again. Two years after his departure, the heartbroken mother told a judge that she had heard Gilles de Rais whisper to his servant that her son was “well chosen” and “as beautiful as an angel.” The testimony came as part of de Rais’ trial for the ritualistic murder and torture of scores of children. Leossart’s ordeal is one of dozens described by 20th-century French critic Georges Bataille in The Trial of Gilles de Rais. The testimonies, transcribed between Sept. 19 and Oct. 22, 1440, detail a horrifying story of corruption, satanism, theatrical opulence and sick delusion.
His prestige, combined with the almost subhuman status of the lower classes in the Middle Ages, made it terrifyingly easy for de Rais to kidnap impoverished children without raising suspicion.
Before his crimes were uncovered, Gilles de Rais was known as one of the richest and most powerful feudal lords of 15th-century France, commanding an immense fortune rivaled only by monarchies. For his bravery in Orléans, he was awarded the prestigious title of Marshal of France. His prestige, combined with the almost subhuman status of the lower classes in the Middle Ages, made it terrifyingly easy for de Rais to kidnap impoverished children without raising suspicion.
The murders allegedly began in the spring of 1432, first in the fortress at Champtocé and then at the castle in Machecoul, just outside of Nantes. Each night, the marshal sent trusted servants to find and abduct unaccompanied peasant children walking along the roads. Hidden away in secret rooms, de Rais and his depraved court would spend the rest of the night taking part in acts of sexual violence reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade’s. De Rais told the judge that he and his accomplices committed “various types and manners of torment; sometimes they severed the head from the body, sometimes they struck them violently on the head with a cudgel or other blunt instruments.”
The marshal boasted to his valet that he took great pleasure in watching the life leave his victims and always stared them deeply in the eyes as they died. According to original trial documents, Étienne Corrillaut, one of de Rais’ followers, said that the marshal kept a macabre collection of heads on display in his secret rooms and would proudly ask members of his court which heads were the most beautiful, often kissing the head that pleased him most. The penchant for destruction the marshal displayed carried over to his fortune, which he recklessly squandered on a decadent lifestyle. In 1435, under the instruction of charlatans and purported sorcerers, the desperate de Rais attempted to re-establish his wealth through alchemy and devil worship. From that point, the murders morphed into occultist rituals or Black Masses of human sacrifice; instead of displaying body parts as trophies, the young lord placed them atop an altar.
On May 15, 1440, de Rais and his men kidnapped a cleric from the Church of Saint-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte after a dispute. During the subsequent investigation prompted by the bishop of Nantes, the marshal’s horrific crimes were discovered. While de Rais was primarily tried, according to Albrecht Classen, co-editor of Crime and Punishment in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age, “because of his dabbling in magic and hiring [of] an alchemist,” he was found guilty of crime and unnatural vice with children, and executed by hanging and burning on Oct. 26, 1440.
Since then, Gilles de Rais has become a mythic figure. His reputation as a serial murderer led folklorists to intertwine the stories of his crimes with those of the French fairy-tale villain Bluebeard. When satanism became popular in late-19th-century Paris, author Joris-Karl Huysmans revived the figure of de Rais as the progenitor of French occultism in his 1891 novel Là-Bas (The Damned). In the 20th century, some medieval scholars questioned the veracity of the charges against de Rais, with French historian Gilbert Prouteau spearheading a campaign in 1992 to rehabilitate the lord’s image. De Rais, Prouteau claimed, was a war hero who, like Joan of Arc, had fallen victim to character assassination.
The majority of scholars, however, dismiss such claims, pointing to the numerous testimonies and the baron’s own words. “There is no reason to assume that [Gilles de Rais’] trial was trumped up,” Classen maintains. Records, after all, suggest a fair trial, “with clear witness depositions that supported each other,” he says, noting how the accused confessed while “displaying the typically theatrical demeanor of a mass murderer.”